Famous People Experience It Too

Mental health issues touch all of us, even those we idolize as celebrities or read about in history books. In many cases, their mental health challenges—think Vincent van Gogh and those swirling starry skies—seem to go hand in hand with genius.

Below is a slideshow of famous people with mental health conditions. Some may come as a surprise; others have been vocal about their challenges.

As you look, remember that one in five Americans experiences a mental health issue every year. Celebrities and regular citizens, old and young, male and female—mental illness does not distinguish. Please play your part in reducing stigma and advancing mental wellness.


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Haldol, Hyacinths, and Healing

Melody Moezzi in front of Scuppernong Books, downtown Greensboro
Melody Moezzi in front of Scuppernong Books, downtown Greensboro

Anyone who’s read Melody Moezzi’s memoir, Haldol and Hyacinths: A Bipolar Life, knows that she is articulate, strong-minded, observant, and wry. Anyone who heard her read and speak at Scuppernong Books last Friday knows that she’s also passionate about mental health reform, brilliant, and straight-talking.

Melody reads from her memoir
Melody reads from her memoir

A self-described “Iranian-American bipolar feminist,” Melody was born to Persian parents at the height of the Islamic revolution. Her parents, both doctors, raised her in Dayton, Ohio, in a tight-knit Iranian-American community. At 18, when Melody began battling pancreatitis, her family and community rallied around her. But when she attempted suicide and was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, there were no flowers. Keep your illness quiet was the message she got from her family and the medical establishment.

Telling Melody Moezzi to keep quiet is like telling a songbird to stop warbling. She won’t be hushed, nor will she put up with stigma, shame, mistreatment, and stereotyping around mental illness. “The silence is what ends up costing us in the end. People need to speak out,” she said in a question-and-answer session following her Friday reading. “The crux of the problem is that we don’t treat mental health as a human right.”

The audience at Scuppernong Books
The audience at Scuppernong Books

Of her own bipolar diagnosis, Melody said, “I don’t pretend to be okay. I still struggle with this daily, especially with depression. It’s a journey, and I’m learning as I go.”

“What’s in your daily toolbox?” an audience member asked her.

She listed a number of tools, including prayer, walking, keeping a structured schedule, writing daily, and seeing a therapist and psychiatrist. “For me, always, love is at the center of everything. That’s what I mean by prayer—it’s about love.”

After speaking for more than an hour, Melody signed copies of Haldol and Hyacinths, newly released in paperback, and talked with each person who approached her. People shared their experiences with mental health challenges while she listened closely, occasionally pushing back a thick strand of her hair.

Signing books
Signing books

There was no silence at the table where she sat. Instead there was a warm, easy flow of words. There was camaraderie and kindness. Most of all there was understanding.

When I got to Stillbrook [psychiatric institute], I was drowning in an ocean of despair. All the people I loved—all the sane, strong and sturdy people who wanted to save me—were stuck on a steady shore. Once at Stillbrook, I noticed a bunch of other people drowning around me, all within reach. It wasn’t just me in the abyss anymore, and now that I knew I wasn’t alone, I had a reason to tread water. Killing myself meant I couldn’t save them. Killing myself meant killing them. Suddenly, I had no choice. I had to swim. So, I swam to save the others, only to find, upon reaching shore, that they had saved me.

–Haldol and Hyacinths: A Bipolar Life, chapter five

Haldol & Hyacinths

Potted Palm

by Mary Seymour, Director of Recovery Initiatives

This painting is the most treasured item in my office.

Palm Bright

It reminds me of where I come from and why I do the work I do. Its message is both poignant and hopeful.

My grandfather, Jon Gnagy, created the painting in 1935, while he was a patient at a mental institution in Philadelphia. Jonnie ended up there after having a psychotic episode; my mother, who was six at the time, remembers him lying on the living room couch and saying, “Take the children away! God is telling me to kill them!” My grandmother made an emergency phone call, and attendants came and whisked Jonnie off in an ambulance. He was twenty-eight.

At the time, my grandparents were living in New Hope, Pennsylvania, and Jonnie was working for an ad agency. He was under tremendous stress both professionally and domestically, with a wife and two young children to provide for, while all he really wanted to do was paint.

Jonnie and my grandmother Mary Jo, three decades after his hospitalization
Jonnie and my grandmother, Mary Jo, 25 years after his hospitalization

Jonnie spent the next nine months in the hospital, where he was diagnosed with dementia praecox (“precocious madness”), a chronic, progressive disorder marked by delusions and steadily disintegrating thoughts . The doctors said his disease was not curable, and he was likely to have more breakdowns. They gave him elephant-strength sedatives and electroconvulsive therapy.

As his mind began to emerge from its neuron-tossed storm, Jonnie took  a box of paints and illustration board into the hospital solarium. He painted what he saw: a potted palm bathed in golden light. His brush strokes were sure and clear, his colors dazzlingly intense. Vibrant shades of orange, green, and yellow saturated his creation.

That day, in the sun-washed solarium, Jonnie began to come back to life. He reconnected with the things that fed his spirit: light, color, beauty, art. “Potted Palm” marked his first brave, vivid steps back to selfhood.

Jonnie was never hospitalized again, but his symptoms followed him for the rest of his life. He alternated between phases of expansive, charismatic, highly creative energy and low, dark, depressive cycles. Throughout it all, he drank. Today he would most likely have a dual diagnosis of alcohol dependence and bipolar disorder.

And yet he managed to be a star at NBC, where he became the first nationally televised art instructor. His show, Learn to Draw, reached millions of viewers in the 1950s and ‘60s. He continued to make his living as an artist until his death in 1981.

Jonnie in an NBC publicity shot
Jonnie in an NBC publicity shot

I only met Jonnie twice, but we are connected in ways both mysterious and clear. Like him, I ended up in a psychiatric hospital due to a psychotic episode. I have a diagnosis of bipolar disorder and a creative spirit that is both a curse and a blessing.

These days I work at the Mental Health Association in Greensboro, where I help spread the word that people can and do recover from mental health challenges. The work, while inspiring, can also be draining. When I falter, I look at Jonnie’s painting.

It tells me that even in the midst of suffering, there is beauty and light and hope.

Thank you, Jonnie, for reminding me.


Speaking Our Truths

Let’s face it, we all love stories—telling them and hearing them. Stories help us make meaning out of our experiences. They render the world comprehensible.

Recovery stories are the ultimate meaning makers, turning pain and suffering into tools of transformation. They remind us that the ugly duckling becomes a swan; the caterpillar turns into a butterfly.


Now, with the debut of the Mental Health Association speakers bureau, we’re offering our own butterfly stories. By speaking our truths, we can educate the community about mental health, reduce social stigma, and provide hope and inspiration.

Please contact us to set up a speaking engagement for your church, school, agency, club, community group, or whatever you have in mind. We promise we won’t bore you, and we may well broaden your perspective.

MHAG Speakers Bureau

The Mental Health Association in Greensboro offers a variety of speakers with firsthand experience of mental health and/or substance abuse struggles. They are available to tell their recovery stories at events such as conferences, classes, trainings, and workshops. We ask for a donation to the Association to cover time and travel costs. Contact Mary Seymour at mseymour@mhag.org or (336) 373.1402 x207 for more information.

Staff Speakers

Christa Whitesell, Director of Supportive Services

ChristaChrista was a teacher for 16 years before coming to MHAG in 2013. She speaks eloquently of her experiences with severe depression, suicidality, and chronic anxiety. Christa works her recovery every day and offers wisdom acquired from hard-earned experience. She says, “My mental health challenges have taught me that a diagnosis is not a definition of self.  It is a piece of self.”  She draws inspiration from the words of Robert Frost: “The best way out is through.”

 Tyrone Collins, Peer Support Specialist

TyroneTyrone struggled with substance use for 25 years, including an addiction to crack cocaine. He spent time in two inpatient facilities but continued to relapse. Finally in 2010 he entered an intensive outpatient program for substance use and worked on his spiritual life. Tyrone, whose favorite saying is the serenity prayer, says, “I define my recovery as being able to handle life and all that it hands me—good or bad—without self medicating.”

David Cray, Peer Support Specialist

David 3David is a poet and classical guitarist. He has a diagnosis of schizoaffective disorder and went through a period of using drugs. He says, “I struggled for a long time. A big part of the problem was my denial: not wanting to believe that something as simple as a substance could be a problem.” David cites his faith in God as a huge factor in his recovery. He adds, “Through learning about my illness and applying recovery principles, I have come to have greater meaning and purpose in my life.”

 Mary Seymour, Director of Recovery Initiatives

MaryMary has written about her experiences with bipolar disorder in Newsweek, Smith Alumnae Quarterly, and O.Henry Magazine. She was first hospitalized in 1995 for a psychotic episode, an experience that represented her worst fears. After feeling victimized by her diagnosis for several years, she began to embrace it. Now she looks at having a mental health challenge as an opportunity for growth. “My so-called illness has made me more compassionate, strong, and resourceful,” she says. Mary is a therapist, peer support specialist, artist, writer, and horsewoman.

Myla Erwin, Director of Programs

MylaMyla was diagnosed with depression in 2004 after unknowingly dealing with it for decades. She says, “I battled depression from my preteen years, but it was never recognized back in the ’60s, as doctors were hesitant to diagnose depression in children.”  She adds, “I cried every day for 30 years without knowing why. The day the medicine started working, I felt like I began to go sane.” Myla is pursuing a master’s degree in Christian counseling.

Community Speakers

Heather Flaherty

Heather Heather has received diagnoses ranging from trichotillomania to major depression to schizoaffective disorder. She has attempted suicide, cut herself, and experienced crippling social phobia. In 2006 she began attending a mental health support group but was shaking too hard to speak. Now she co-facilitates that group and is training to be a peer support specialist. Heather attributes her recovery to a great therapist and psychiatrist, recovery classes, and peers. She says, “For the first time in my 27 years of living, I have self worth.”

Norma Jean Wilkes

Norma JeanNorma Jean’s story of weathering the many storms of bipolar disorder is raw and compelling. Her  personal account of living through a roller coaster of moods, thoughts, and behaviors has touched many lives and given hope to others who struggle with mental health challenges. Norma Jean has been a therapist, workshop presenter, public speaker, and storyteller. She is a certified peer support specialist who leads a mind-body health group at Daymark Recovery in Winston-Salem.

Diana Marsh

DianaDiana, who has a diagnosis of schizoaffective disorder, has experienced child abuse, domestic violence, illiteracy, and substance abuse. Her recovery path was paved with bumps and slips until 2003, when she decided she could either change or die. “I made up my mind that I was no longer going to be hospitalized for mental illness, incarcerated, victimized, homeless, hopeless, or high,” she says. A recovery educator and peer support specialist for Insight Health Human Services, Diana is earning her bachelor’s in social work at Winston-Salem State University.

The Art of Healthy Living

The 2014 Art of Healthy Living Auction was the place to be in downtown Greensboro on April 11. More than 200 people came to the Empire Room to nosh on appetizers, bid on donated goods, chat, and dance to the Brice Street Band.

Perusing and talking in the Empire Room
Perusing and talking in the Empire Room

Former TV anchor Rosemary Plybon served as auctioneer for the live bidding, which included a signed Kobe Bryant basketball jersey, three seaside vacation rentals, and a pair of diamond earrings.

A vacation rental goes on the auction block; Kobe Bryant jersey is in background
A vacation rental goes on the auction block; Kobe Bryant jersey is in background

At the end of the night, a bidding war broke out over a German shepherd pup. As the puppy sniffed for crumbs on the carpet under the watchful eye of his trainer, the bidding escalated to $1,900—the biggest sum for any single item at the auction. The couple who bought him wore ear-to-ear smiles.

Who could resist? Especially when the dog comes with a free year of training.
Who could resist? Especially when the dog comes with a free year of training.

Bill Ingold, chair of the board for the Mental Health Association in Greensboro, was a platinum-level sponsor of the auction, along with his wife, Diane. Bill was omnipresent throughout the evening, working the crowd and keeping the event flowing smoothly. He and the Association board organized the auction, with a big helping hand from executive director Susan Ball and auction chair Rick Ball.

MHAG board chair Bill Ingold
MHAG board chair Bill Ingold
Susan Ball (center) laughs with an auction-goer
Susan Ball (center) laughs with an auction-goer

“We couldn’t have asked for a better event,” Susan said at the end of the evening. “People really seemed to enjoy themselves—the room was literally buzzing. I think it was a win-win: the Association raised friends and funds, and everyone attending got to support mental health and have fun at the same time.”

Dancing the night away
Dancing the night away

All in all, the auction brought it more than $24,000—a healthy sum indeed!

First Annual Mental Health Recovery Conference

Bryan Creech, peer recovery coach at Recovery Innovations and blogger extraordinaire, wrote the following post about our recovery conference on March 28. He generously allowed us to re-publish his words; the original version can be found at his blog,  Stories from the Road: The Many Faces of Peer Support in NC.

The First Annual Mental Health Conference was sponsored by the Mental Health Association of Greensboro, and we were welcomed by Susan Ball, executive director, and Mary Seymour, director of recovery initiatives. The event took place at the Elliott University Center on the UNCG campus.

A full house
A full house

This was a day-long conference that brought together counselors, social workers, therapists, psychologists, psychiatrists, peer support specialists, educators, and students from across NC. The topics they covered included:

  • defining mental health recovery
  • using a strength-based perspective in assessment
  • ethics of self-disclosure
  • holistic approach to recovery-oriented mental health care

The  first presenter was Cherene Allen-Caraco, executive director and founder of Promise Resource Network. She offered an engaging presentation on:

  • the history of mental health treatment
  • the history of the recovery movement
  • defining mental health recovery
  • practical ways to bring recovery-oriented care into your own practice
Cherene Allen-Caraco captivates the crowd
Cherene Allen-Caraco captivates the crowd

From a peer perspective, Cherene challenged me to raise my level of  conciousness about my mindset, language, and overall approach to supporting others.  Some other important insights she reminded me were: the dignity of riskemployment as a path to recovery; combating societal and self-stigma, and the all-important lesson of (learning as a peer) how to give up power and control.

The second speaker was Dr. Jan Laughinghouse, social work program coordinator and assistant professor at Bennett College. She shared some important insights on a strengths-based perspective:

  • strengths-based assessment
  • ways to empower clients
  • how to create and maintain a supportive, therapeutic, and hopeful environmen
Jan Laughinghouse talks about emphasizing client strengths, not deficits
Jan Laughinghouse talks about emphasizing client strengths, not deficits

She offered some helpful distinctions between pity (feeling for someone), sympathy (feeling with someone); and empathy (feeling as someone). She touched on the important work of Albert Bandura and the assessment work of Epstein and Graybeard. She brought an informative, passionate, and affirming approach to ways to gain insight into the motivations, aspirations, and strengths of those we support.

There was a panel discussion with Dr. Joseph Jordan, clinical director, NC Physicians Health ProgramDr. A. Keith Mobley, clinical associate professor and clinic director, UNCG;  Shannon Englehorn, counselor at Cone Health Behavioral Health Hospital; Myla Erwin, peer support specialist and director of programs for the Mental Health Association of Greensboro; and Amber Pope, therapist at Tree of Life Counseling.

Some of the helpful insights I gained from this panel discussion were to be aware of:

  • how to share your lived experiences
  • when and why you should share
  • when you should not share and the importance of intuition
Panelist Myla Erwin answers a question while Joe Jordan and Shannon Englehorn look on
Panelist Myla Erwin answers a question while Joe Jordan and Shannon Englehorn look on

Dr. Sharon Young, psychologist and director of CooperRiis Institute, CooperRiis Healing Community, was the final speaker. She was joined by Becky Singer, residential activities director at their Asheville campus, who shared her own insights and life experiences as a participant and now as a staff person at CooperRiis. Dr. Young presented  A Holistic 7 Domains Approach, which grew out of her doctoral research. From her extensive research and interviews from many people sharing their recovery stories, she was able to glean and establish the seven domains. She, along with others, has been able to develop a holistic approach of care at CooperRiis on these domains.

Sharon Young begins her presentation
Sharon Young begins her presentation

The 7 Domains are as follows:

  1. Social/Community/Connectedness—our ability to connect to others in a healthy way
  2. Spirituality—our sense of inner peace and harmony; our hopefulness and passion for life
  3. Purpose/Productivity/Fulfillment—accomplishment, fulfillment, achievement, and meaning
  4. Empowerment/Independence—increased sense of control of over one’s life and recovery
  5. Emotional and Psychological Health—one’s well-being and emotional stability
  6. Physical Wellness—one’s ability to take care of  basic physical needs
  7. Intellectual/Learning/Creativity—a desire to learn and to challenge yourself mentally/creatively
Becky Singer of CooperRiis talks about her recovery
Becky Singer of CooperRiis talks about her recovery journey

This was a wonderful conference and an important one for peers to get a chance to see the exciting things that are happening  across the state of North Carolina as we  seek to move our state towards recovery-oriented systems of care.

Recovery Journeys: David Cray

Stella Oh, a student at UNCG who also attends Wellness Academy classes, embarked on an oral history project last summer. She began interviewing peers and staff members at the Association, asking questions about their recovery and what they’ve learned along the way. The following interview with David Cray, peer support specialist and Wellness Academy teacher, is the first in Stella’s Recovery Journeys project.

Describe yourself in a few words.

Creative. Sometimes a little shy. Confident in some ways.

What does recovery mean to you?

For me, it’s the process of dealing with symptoms—hopefully avoiding them, if possible—and overcoming mental illness.

David Cray
David Cray

You are a peer support specialist. What is that like?

I learn a lot from being a peer support specialist, especially about how people deal with problems. I like the interaction: It’s fun to feel like I’m helping someone—to see a person who has not been doing so well leave happier.

How has creativity played a role in your life?

It’s been a big part of my life. I went to school for music, and I’m also a writer. Even before I knew much about recovery, I was using music as an outlet and a way to get through problems.  I also compose poetry, and I’ve written a book on mental illness that I’m trying to get published.

Tell me more about your book.

It talks a bit about my own story and the things that have helped me recover.

Who is your support system?

My mom and my wife are really supportive, and I have support at work—everybody helps each other here.

What gives you hope?

Well, my spiritual walk. I have a strong belief in God—feeling that God wants to love and help me has given me hope. Seeing other people go through struggles and remain positive gives me a lot of hope.

How do you think the media can better portray people with mental health challenges?

It would be neat if the media talked about how mental illness has actually brought good things into people’s lives. It can be hard thing to accept, but it can also help us grow and learn.

What advice do you have for peers?

Make your recovery a very active, intentional thing. We have to focus on our dreams, because if we give up on them, we’re not going to have a whole lot of hope. Dreams are what make a difference in your life. Also, find a way to get support through groups and social activities; avoid isolation because that can cause a lot of problems.

Speaking of dreams, do you have any for your future?

I’d like to have my book published as well as some books of poetry. I’m in the process of recording a classical guitar album at a studio in High Point. It’s almost done, but the finishing touches are taking a while. I’d like to get that album produced and out there. And I’d like to keep growing in my recovery journey.

David makes music with John Carr at MHAG's annual picnic
David makes music with John Carr at MHAG’s annual picnic

Is there a specific crisis moment that you recovered from?

I went through a period when I was involved in things I’m not proud of—drug use, stuff like that. I struggled for a long time. A big part of the problem was my denial: not wanting to believe that something as simple as a substance could be a problem. When I finally got a grip, my spiritual walk began. I quit smoking cigarettes too, which is probably one of the best things I’ve ever done. I didn’t really have a lot of success with quitting until I began learning about God and recovery and got involved in support. I became active in the community too, which gave me a lot more confidence. I volunteered for a while at the Salvation Army. It’s not something I expected to enjoy because I had this negative image of homeless people. When I got there, I started to appreciate everyone’s humanness and the fact that they’re just trying to get through hard situations, and they deserve a good life as much as anyone else. I started feeling compassion toward people that had mental illness and had struggled with the same things as I had. I got involved in Celebrate Recovery, a Christian recovery group along the same line as AA and NA. I played in the band there for five years and that was a lot of fun; being social and finding healthier people to be around was helpful.

What mental health terminology do you think is best?

To me, the issue is not so much the words we use but how we use them. If someone says “mentally ill” with a tone like it’s a terrible thing—then it sounds negative. I try to be sensitive to the individual rather than to the words themselves because I think that’s what makes the difference.

Do you have anything else to add?

I’ve gotten involved in nutrition and exercise, and that’s been really powerful for me. I’m doing a lot of juicing with fruits and vegetables, and I walk every day. It doesn’t even need to be a long walk. When I walk, I’m not thinking of it as exercise—I’m just trying to have fun for 20 minutes, and that makes it easier.

The Rewards of Gratitude

Research shows that being thankful is good for your physical and mental health. Gratitude can help relieve stress, depression, anxiety, anger, and other negative emotions. People who count their lucky stars tend to be more optimistic, sociable, and engaged in life.

So what exactly is gratitude? Psychologists describe it as maintaining a world view that appreciates the positive. Unlike optimism, which is general hopefulness about the future, gratitude requires recognizing that others helped you toward a happy outcome. 


Making a “gratitude list” is  a way to strengthen your positive-focused thinking. In fact, it’s often part of 12-step programs for addictions.

With Thanksgiving around the corner, we’d like to make our own gratitude list. We give thanks for:

  • the extraordinary people we serve, who continually teach us lessons in resilience, strength, and perseverance
  • our staff, who open their hearts and give unstintingly every day
  • our funders, who make our free services possible
  • everyone who is working to reduce the stigma of mental illness
  • the continuing progress of the mental health recovery movement

Last but not least, we’re grateful for the chance to express our gratitude. Now we feel even better!

Vision Quest

The Mental Health Association in Greensboro offers community education on recovery. One recent outreach project was a two-part workshop, “The Power of Hope,” at the Servant Center in Greensboro. This post describes the second workshop, in which participants made vision boards reflecting their hopes and goals.

A pile of magazines. Poster board. Glue. Scissors. With these simple materials, nine men at the Servant Center gave voice to their dreams.

They sat at two broad tables drawn together in the center’s library. They began by leafing through magazines, cutting out words and images that appealed to them. Their instructions were to be instinctive, to let their unconscious come out to play.

Rupert, Ed, and Danny tackle the magazine pile
Rupert, Ed, and Danny tackle the magazine pile

“Here’s a great Langston Hughes quote,” one said. He read the first words out loud: What happens to a dream deferred?

“Hey, you’re copying me!” Danny teased Rupert. Both had snipped the word “Vision” out of National Geographic.

Little personal piles of paper accumulated around the table. The men sifted through their piles and began to arrange phrases and pictures on poster board.

Vision board in progress
Vision board in progress

The room was quiet, the kind of quiet that comes with concentrated effort. Scissor blades scraped against paper, and the aroma of Elmer’s glue wafted through the room. You could almost imagine these men as children, bent over their school desks, before they served in the military, before prison or addiction or homelessness got in the way of their dreams.

“We need more time. An hour isn’t enough.”

But an hour was all they had, so they conjured their dreams as quickly as possible, then talked about their creations.

“I put ‘Back to School’ on mine because I’m starting college this fall, I’ll be studying substance abuse treatment at GTCC,” Everett explained. “I was dreading doing this activity beforehand. I thought, ‘What’s the point?’ But I really enjoyed it. I’m going to hang my board on the wall.”

Everett works on his creation
Everett works on his creation

Rupert said putting together his vision board inspired him. “I just found out I’ve lost fifty percent of my hearing, but this board makes me feel good.” For him, the creative process was surprisingly fluid: “It just happened. I didn’t even have to think about it.”

Jerome folded his poster board into an oversized book. The first side showed a pendant with a lock. “That represents the years I spent shut up in prison,” Jerome explained. “The upside-down eye stands for insight.” He smiled when he got to the final page of his book, festooned with white-petal flowers and the words “A Different Kind of Perfect.”

Jerome and his vision book
Jerome and his vision book

Danny’s board had a large, shadowy mountain on it. “That’s the mountain I’ve been climbing all my life,” he said matter-of-factly. Smack dab in the center of the poster board was a straw hat, a jaunty blazer, and a pair of pointy lace-up shoes.

The unfinished man
The unfinished man

“Why are there clothes but no person?” someone asked.

“I’m working on becoming that person,” Danny answered.

Everyone helped clean up afterward, sweeping the floor, tossing paper scraps into the trash. Danny was the last to leave; he helped carry the heavy bags of magazines outside. “I’m going to keep working on my vision board,” he said. “There’s a lot more I want to do.”

Dan Fisher: Harbinger of Hope

Dan Fisher has a story to tell.

Some of it is personal.

He was diagnosed with schizophrenia in 1970, while working in the neurochemistry lab at the National Institute of Mental Health. He was trying to find the chemical that would “save” his sister, who was literally starving herself to death. Dan, who had a Ph.D. in biochemistry, got so immersed in the world of the brain that he thought he was a neurochemical. Then he became catatonic.

Next came psychiatric hospitalization—the worst nightmare possible, in many people’s eyes.

For Dan, being hospitalized led him toward his calling. He went on to earn an M.D. from George Washington University Medical School, complete his residency at Harvard, and become a psychiatrist. He worked as a staff psychiatrist and medical director at various mental health centers in eastern Massachusetts for 30 years. He is presently a faculty member in the department of psychiatry at UMass Medical School in Worcester.

Dan Fisher in downtown Greensboro, April 19, 2013
Dan Fisher in downtown Greensboro, April 19, 2013

Even as he was working within the mental health system, Dan was quietly but firmly challenging it. He didn’t like the traditional medical model that ascribed “mental illness” to a chemical imbalance in the brain. He saw far more influences, including childhood trauma and generational patterns.

He became a change agent, championing the growing recovery movement—a grassroots initiative that gained traction in the late 1980s and 1990s. Led by self-proclaimed consumers, survivors, and ex-patients, the movement stressed that people can and do recover from mental health challenges. Recovery activists began lobbying for mental health services that focused on growth, hope, and social inclusion, not just symptom management.

In 2002, President George W. Bush asked Dan to join the President’s New Freedom Commission on Mental Health. Dan convinced his fellow members to take a recovery-oriented stance, and their resulting report, issued in 2003, reflected that perspective. The man once rendered speechless and motionless by catatonia had helped change national mental health policy.  

Dan, who serves as executive director of the National Empowerment Center, does about 18 speaking engagements and workshops a year. The Mental Health Association in Greensboro invited him to Greensboro to hold a community dialogue on recovery and to speak at the 17th Annual Regional Mental Health Conference. “The belief of the people around you is absolutely critical,” he said during the community dialogue. “Hope, hope, hope. It has to be there. Rob the person of hope, and there won’t be any recovery.” 

People came from all over North Carolina hear Dan's talk, "It Takes a Village," held April 18, 2013, at the Interactive Resorce Center
People came from all over North Carolina to hear Dan’s talk, “It Takes a Village: A Community Dialogue on Mental Health Recovery,” April 18, 2013

Read more  of Dan’s thoughts in the following Q&A.

How do you define recovery?

One characteristic is that it’s individualized—so there is no single definition. Recovery is about contributing and feeling your life has meaning. It doesn’t mean you have to be off medication. And it’s not about symptom reduction. People ask me if I continue to have symptoms. I still experience things, as everyone does, like anxiety and ups and downs. But they don’t keep me from having a meaningful role—therefore I consider myself recovered from schizophrenia. I continue to grow, as I hope everyone does.

Recovery has more to do with social interactions. I’m taken by the Finnish model, which uses an approach called Open Dialogue. It emphasizes meaningful dialogue—feeling you can be heard and influence others. It describes psychosis as a monologue, and recovery as a return to dialogue. Open Dialogue grew out of a system of family therapy, but in this system no one is to blame. Robert Whitaker details this approach in chapter ten of his book, Anatomy of an Epidemic.

Optimism is one of the biggest factors in recovery: if you’re with people who believe in you and have hope for your future, you’re more likely to recover.

What’s your proudest accomplishment?

I’m proudest of my work on the White House Commission on Mental Health. I was the only member with a declared psychiatric condition. At the beginning, the other commissioners were mostly against me in terms of recovery. They came around by the end. I brought in a lot of powerful allies.

What is your favorite quotation?

“Explanation separates us from astonishment, which is the only gateway to the incomprehensible.” ~Eugene Ionesco. This is an astonishing thought, and when I attempt to explain it, it loses its astonishment.

What are some simple things people can do to support the recovery movement?

First, try to overcome what I call the medicalized perspective, which presents the world as a set of programs and goals to be carried out. Try to recognize the importance of connecting to other human beings. Also, influence as widely as possible the policies and politics that are dehumanizing all of us.

What’s the biggest change you’d like to see in mental health policy in the next five years?

I’d like to see mental health policy integrated into public health and wellness, so that a person’s overall health is seen as integral to living. I’d also like to see the demise of direct advertising to consumers by pharmaceutical companies; in its place would be public education about unifying mind, body, and spirit for health.

Why do you think there’s such stigma around mental illness?

First of all, the term “mental illness” itself perpetuates stigma—and the term “stigma” stigmatizes. Conceptualizing these human-life problems as medical illness has been proven to increase discrimination against people who are so labeled. Changing the description of “mental illness” would be very important. I think people have a fear of irrationality— that by being close to people who are thinking differently, they are going to lose their capacity to think in a linear, rational fashion. I believe that contributes greatly to what I prefer to call prejudice and discrimination.

As both a psychiatrist and an advocate with lived experience, where does your allegiance lie?

I put more of my energy, time, and enthusiasm into my role as an advocate. I think change has to happen from outside the system; the system is generally protected against change from within. I tried being in the system for 30 years. Now I spend more of my time trying to galvanize from the outside. I feel a little bit like Robert Oppenheimer [developer of the world’s first nuclear weapons]. I didn’t design bombs, but I worked in the labs, writing the scripts.

Whom do you admire most?

Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln: They weren’t afraid to go against public opinion for what they believed in. My wife, who works in public health, is a hero of mine. And my two daughters—both of them are pretty fearless about questioning the status quo. 

What’s one thing most people don’t know about you?

By nature I’m shy. It took me a long time to feel comfortable speaking to the public. When I was younger, I literally would get sick at the idea of having to give a talk. Having a meaningful reason to speak changed that for me.